Two Moods: One Day and The Next

One Day

I’m irritable and don’t know why, so what kind of poet am I, alleged practitioner of the art of examined feelings? Can’t settle to work, can’t settle to anything, go dig in the dirt. Weeding: a job that’s never done, the job my mother did endlessly. As soon as the afternoon rain ended, she was out in steamy Florida air—weeds pull up easily then, roots and all—and returned to the house calmer. But not me, not today. Today three loads of weeds don’t stop my monkey mind’s swinging from peeve to peeve, feeling anew the pang of my mother’s death, though it’s been five years, fuming about the thudding bass coming from the apartments. I don’t make you listen to Bach fugues, do I? Why do you make me listen to your moronic beat? It’s a snarly mood, like I want to slap someone—idiot Trump would do—want to scream at climate change deniers: the evidence is in, Jack, it’s on us. We just gave permits to Shell to drill in the Arctic of all bad ideas and speaking of Big Oil (those corporations who are people and run the country and don’t give a shit about the rest of us) we’ve known for decades that fracking’s injection wells induce earthquakes and done nothing about it. Looking in the mirror doesn’t help: I’m over this aging crap, this wrinkling, discoloring skin, each day’s aches and pains, the way an hour of weeding leaves me sore. I’m waiting and I hate waiting. I’m waiting for the translation job to get here so I can finish it and I’m waiting for the will to stick to a diet and exercise for more than two days running and I’m waiting to find a cause for this two-year headache and I’m waiting for it to rain and I’m waiting to absorb the shock of seeing my stepson after open heart surgery, that long sutured incision down the middle of his chest, his face an old man’s. I’m waiting to find out how long it takes to stop feeling guilt and grief about my dead, whose number increases. I’m waiting for people to wake up, but by God I’m not waiting for a rebirth of wonder because I’m nursing this sulk too, sucking it up through a straw, tasting every bit before I’m willing to let it go.

The Next

We go to eat at Leña, which means firewood, their specialty the white oak grilled asado section of the menu, and at 5 it’s sunny, but impressively dark thunderclouds hover to the west as we set out. We imagine driving around and around for parking, imagine being drenched, but find a meter in the very block, and the oak gives savory taste to skewered veggies and pork and the décor is día de los muertos, the ubiquitous esqueletos and calaveras Posada never gets credit for, that we’ve made into T-shirt clichés, but I like seeing them anyway. As we finish Phil, that devil, says you know, Sweet Action is in this block: salted butterscotch, peppermint fudge, chocolate mole, whiskey pecan…Sun streams in storefront windows as we have ice cream after which clouds recover the sky and we’re contented walking back to the car, and look, Phil is walking, walking without pain, and even suggests, that bookstore in the next block, the door’s open. Ah, that pristine first edition in dust jacket of Leaf Storm and Other Stories I found in Brooklyn! We remember places by the books we found there, but our bookscouting days are done: we haven’t been in this store for years. It has a coffee bar now, two deadly serious young men on laptops, a big vinyl section, loud rap music with mothafugah in the chorus and a young couple giggling together in a corner. I’m looking at shabby old books and thinking, “I’m ready to go,” when the noise stops and suddenly Nina Simone, “I Put a Spell on You,” floods me with memories of waitressing in a California jazz club and the incomparable Nina Simone on the jukebox when the band took a break. I’m browsing the poetry, one narrow shelf, become aware as I slide a book back, that someone’s behind me: a young Chicano, longish black hair, apologizes. Also apologetic, I say, “this is all the poetry they have,” pull out that book again: “this is cool, a verse novel, a narrative poem, the poet’s from Colorado.” “Oh, Ludlow,” he says. “People should know about that. I think I’ll buy it if you don’t.” “Be my guest,” I say, smiling. And here I am pushing poetry on unsuspecting young men and getting a hit of Nina Simone on a Wednesday night, and here’s Phil walking comfortably up and down the block, and when we leave the bookstore a fast spatter of rain has come and gone without our even knowing it.

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Elegy for a Peach Tree

Two peach trees graced the back yard of the big house to the north when we moved here thirty years ago. I harvested what hung over my fence. No one else did and the yard had gone to weeds. My neighbor two doors south came here in 1945, said the big house and yard were spectacular in their glory days. My peach tree was a volunteer, sprouted twenty-some years ago.

It turned out to be the last of its tribe. A developer bought the neglected big house in the 90s, disregarded our protests, cut everything down—the peach trees, the grand old maple, the rose bush—inexplicably leaving a crab apple near the house and an otherwise bare yard. When that happened, my little peach was six feet tall, its pink blossoms brightening my world each April.

Except for major events like the Blizzard of ’82, weather memories blur quickly. I don’t recall this, but last November a cold front dove us overnight from the mid-60s to 13. Many trees hadn’t hardened yet, including my peach. This spring, buds appeared, never opened, shrank; a few leaves, bright green, withered and fell. All spring I peered daily into its branches seeking signs of life.

The peach in 2012,  a good year

The peach in 2012, a good year

The August I had peaches for the first time, I knew nothing, appealed to Mardi and don José. “Will they ripen if I pick them?” They were still greenish, but squirrels were ravaging them like candy. We stood in Mardi’s back yard, looking at sagging, peach-laden branches drooping over her fence.

A squirrel yanked off a peach, sat on its haunches, took three bites and dropped it. I’d tried dangling shiny things, nets, coyote urine and charging out the back door with a broom. The squirrels looked at me, like, “are you kidding, lady?”

“Pimiento,” Mardi said wisely, “pimiento o cal.” She mimed throwing pepper or lime over the branches. Too late now, though. Do it when the fruit is chartreuse and the size of olives. Squinting into the branches doubtfully, Mardi pulled a peach and bit into it. Her frown became delight.“Son listos, son dulces,” she exclaimed.

Don José, who had been rather reserved about these peaches, picked another and examined it closely, a light dawning. “Son duraznos blancos,” he beamed. “Los crecen en México.”

“The ones in your yard are yours,” I proclaimed the obvious, but these neighbors wouldn’t have touched a peach until I said it. Now that he knew what they were, don José became enthusiastic, picked a bagful. White peaches, like they grow in Mexico. They were, as Mardi said, ready, and sweet.

Another good year, 2010

Another good year, 2010

By early September, I’d spent hours pruning back to one peach every few inches but still lost several slender branches, breaking under their sweet burden. It had been an ideal spring: generous rain, no late freezes. Blossoms covered the tree and fluttered down petal by pink petal without an intervening frost. Much of September passed in picking and putting up peaches. I’d never done that before but everything I needed to know was online. Ripeness can’t be gauged by the rosiness on their sun side: the green of the whole has to turn yellowish before they’ll finish in a paper bag. Those that are ready leave the stem willingly. Those that are not resist letting go, much like children.

If you scald peaches, they slip easily out of their suede skins. By the last batch I knew a minute or two in hot water was enough and when I plucked one out, could tell ripeness by touch. A push of my thumb at the stem indentation and the skin slid off on ripe ones, leaving a paler wash of red and yellow, the pigment of the peel staining the flesh beneath. Denuded peaches are satisfying to contemplate, muted in color, moist and glistening as if glazed. Those that resist peeling are too green, can’t be forced. They offer evidence I’ve been impatient in trying to beat the squirrels.

When that first season ended, I had six quarts of sliced peaches in the freezer. Five jars of preserves and three of chutney glowed on the shelves. I’d made pies and cobblers and given bagsful away. I’d had the exquisite pleasure of selecting an exactly ripe fruit—one I’d climbed the ladder to reach—and biting into its fragrant, sun-warmed flesh.

Those pleasures and that hard work, two things so often joined, recurred several seasons, but not many. Early bloomers have a rough go in Colorado, and those pink petals were often battered by April snow. Peach trees have a 25-30 year lifespan, and mine was in that range. I will miss this tree’s blossoms and bounty, yes, but also its gracefully curved leaf, its deep shade, its connection to the past.

2015-07-05 Dead tree12.19.58

The Peach tree in July, 2015

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Old Reflections

On my way to meet my granddaughter Leslie for lunch last week, I slipped a snapshot into my purse. Cleaning up my archaic photo albums—things no one has these days; it’s all in the cloud—I’d found duplicates. Most I’d tossed, but this one made me think: “Leslie will like it.” The photo was taken in 1975, at Great Falls Park, Virginia. Leslie and I smile at the camera: she is three and in my lap, two fingers in her mouth.

When I handed it to her, Les exclaimed, “Grandma, you were beautiful.”

“Let me see,” I thought. “Was I really?” But I’d already studied the photo, admiring that young woman’s hair, her slender arms. She thought her arms were fat: what an idiot. I can show her fat arms. She was far from the person I am now and yet, through all her issues and mistakes, she led to me.

I like 70 as the beginning of old age in our time. A financial advisor discussing saving for travel said the 60s are go-go, the 70s slow-go and the 80s no-go. So far, for me he was right. The sixties were fine. I worked right through half of mine, did some domestic traveling, fit in a fast-paced trip to Spain just after the decade ended. Now a plane trip leaves me tired and I need to lie down. The seventies: slow-go.

Conversations about health—or the lack thereof—happen daily in your seventies, it seems. These chronic headaches and plugged ears I wake with, over two years now. I’ve seen the entire medical establishment and no relief. So many friends and family in my age group deal with worse: cancer, COPD, macular degeneration, disintegrating heart valves. My husband had an amputation last year, an enormous life changer. How could we not talk about such things constantly?

That we do is partly our fascination with flaws: the dent in the new fridge, the mole on your cheek, the crack in the ceiling, your eyes go right to it, every time and if you can’t see it, you peer closer or change your angle, so you can: “ah, there it is,” you exclaim with satisfaction.

When I hear from former Spanish students, the first thing is an apology for what a lousy student he/she was or, “I’m sorry I was so much trouble in your class.”

A thirty-year-old man stands before me, apologizing for adolescent failures. Behind his face I see the dim shadow of a boy who was once my student, but beyond that, remember nothing. My own failures of that time I could easily list for you.

Partly it’s that these are age-related ailments, things we still have no good cures for, and those of us who’ve been blessed with health and vigor until now, discover these slowly creeping chronic complaints like rude awakenings, insults, indignities. Oh, not ME. And what do you mean, you can’t fix it? I say I’ve been waking with these headaches for two years and the doctor says, “I have patients who’ve been having them for ten.” Helpful.

Riding a bus from downtown Chicago to our friend’s lakefront apartment, three well-dressed old ladies sat behind us, scarcely taking a breath, relentlessly chronicling their doctor visits and symptoms and ailments. I was in my go-go sixties at the time, not admitting to being old, mentioned this bus experience to our friend, who sighed and said, “that’s all they ever talk about.”

My friend Toni says, “let’s not go there. If we begin talking about our aches and pains we’ll never stop.”

…I find that age has bestowed a kind of comfortable anonymity…age may sideline, but it also confers a sort of neutrality; you are no longer out there in the thick of things, but able to stand back, observe, consider.  —Penelope Lively

I understand Penelope perfectly, because she’s a writer and obviously an introvert as well. Only an introvert could find not being “in the thick of things” a delightful position. We engage in more extroverted lives when young, but old age is a harmonious time for introverted writers. We discover that noisy restaurants upset our digestions and worsen our chronic headaches, that crowds give us a rash, there is nothing at a big box store we need to buy, and travel is only pleasant if we’re the only ones taking in the spectacular view.

An occasional visit with a beloved grandchild, a weekend with no engagements, a walk with a friend, an evening with a choice of books and The Daily Show, mornings with nothing to do but write: I’ll have two of each please.

On the way home from seeing Leslie, I thought about the long, switchback road we travel from youth to age. I remembered being perhaps 22, at the kitchen table of the old house in Queens with Katarina Dubrava Keuning, my grandmother. I turned the soft black pages, looking at sepia photos from some ancient era: my grandmother, perhaps 20, lately off the boat and Ellis Island.

“Nana, I exclaimed, “you were beautiful.”



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The Whittier Neighborhood, 1991

A piece pulled from the archives. So much has changed since 1991: we’re far from the only whites on the block, people don’t stop their cars in the street to visit anymore and there may not be a single boarded up, vacant house in the entire neighborhood. And Andrea? She lives in St. Louis, stopped by with her two children last year, thirty-something and still beautiful.

I live in Northeast Denver. Some people say they live in Northeast Denver and when you visit, the streets are lined with tall, well-pruned elms and maples, beautifully restored Victorians and bungalows with lush lawns. That’s Park Hill. That’s not what I mean.

I mean old houses sagging at the porch line, peeling paint at the eaves, next to a row of crowded apartments with bare dirt yards, Spanish and rap music; and on the other side a tall Denver square, boarded up, its yard choked with weeds. I mean the sections of Five Points, Cole, and Whittier in which Denver’s District 2 cops call people like us urban pioneers, as if we were homesteading in the wilderness.

The cops have their reasons. They see the hard stuff, and so think the neighborhood is rife with crime. We’ve had a taste of that, so they aren’t totally wrong. We were burglarized our first year, and again the third. A drug dealer was shot in the corner apartment the fourth year, and the burglaries stopped. There were domestic violence situations with renters. The cops were here for all of that. But I don’t want to focus on such things, seductive though they are. They are rare events, punctuations to otherwise placid days, weeks, and months in the seven years of our Whittier residency.

Our house had been vandalized during its long early 1980s vacancy. The signs of that abuse were like scars on skin—shattered windows and light fixtures, kicked in bedroom doors, cigarette burns in old shag carpets. We reclaimed this house, made it radiate calm and care, made it ours. It was twice the house we could’ve afforded elsewhere. That’s why we were here—defying conventional wisdom, house was more important to us than location. Self-conscious as if stage-lit, we moved into this basically black area, an area that, despite our many years in Denver, we’d never even had reason to drive through before.

In the weeks we spent painting and repairing and hacking through the jungle in our yard prior to moving in, not a neighbor glanced at us. It was daunting. We had second thoughts, moments of sheer panic. One day we walked past the apartments and a group of small children stopped playing to stare. “Them’s the only white folks we got,” one child proclaimed to the rest.

Months later, as I sprinkled grass seed on the bare dirt of the back yard, Mz. Evelyn waved over her fence two yards away. “Hello!” she called. “You’re doing a wonderful job with the yard.” It was the crack in the ice, the beginning of the thaw. After that we met Jo Bunton-Keel, the tirelessly dedicated director of Eulipions Center for the Arts, and missed her sorely some years later when she moved. We came to know the lovely Frida three houses down, and her two equally lovely daughters. Andrea was eight that year, all legs, and took to running full tilt to greet us when we came home from work, as if she were our child. When that happened we knew we’d made the right decision.

Years ago, I saw Maya Angelou’s magnificent one-woman performance and her advice to the largely white audience was: if you don’t have any black friends, go make some. The unspoken premise of that directive is that cultural diversity is cultural enrichment. Don’t we all agree? Apparently not, in view of the way so many wonderful old houses here remain empty, priced at a fraction of the same houses in Wash Park.

We are still the only white people on our block, seven years later, but now I’m a bit smug about my status. I’d almost resent someone else white moving in, destroying my uniqueness. Now I know the best places to get barbeque, have attended Juneteenth parades and seen “Black Orpheus” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” at Eulipions in Five Points. I’ve resurrected my rusty Spanish to say, “Baja la música, por favor.” We have the occasional loud night, but usually quiet fills our mornings and sifts into our evenings. Visiting friends remark on the tranquility with surprise, and I feel gratified to deflate one more little stereotype bubble. I’ve re-learned the habit of stopping the car in the middle of the street to chat with a friend sitting on her porch, something I remember from my small town childhood. There, when you did that, other cars waited patiently behind you, or eased around, if there was room. Here, if the cars behind you are from “the hood,” they do the same. Here, Mz. Evelyn is absolutely Mz. Evelyn to everybody, the respect due her 78 years, and belonging to the neighborhood association is like being a member of a crusade.

I’ve watched Frida’s two girls grow up, the oldest going off to college. Andrea, now a poised fifteen-year-old, said to me, “You moved here when I was just a little girl.” Stunned, I realized it was true. In her young life, I’ve always been a neighbor, and this has always been home. And that’s what living here is like for us.

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